Photo: Sarah Klaassen and Jamie Haskins give a blessing at the end of the Pink Menno worship service during the 2015 Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City. Photo by Anna Groff.
As denominational loyalties shift, several Mennonite-connected organizations are testing new models for calling pastors.
Lloyd Miller, a former pastor and conference minister from Goshen, Indiana, has been appointed to serve as reconciling minister, working to connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) pastoral candidates with congregations looking for a pastor. The position was jointly initiated by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors, a network of current Mennonite Church USA pastors who believe “the denomination should fully include and affirm LGBTQIA people in the life of congregations, conferences and the denomination,” and the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. The Reconciling Minister Project officially launched on April 15.
According to Joel Miller, pastor at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church, conversations about this role began at the Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred Conference, a November 2014 gathering of the LGBTQA community sponsored by BMC, Inclusive Mennonite Pastors and Pink Menno, a movement that supports the “supports the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in marriage, in ordination, and in the loving community of Christian fellowship within the Mennonite Church.”
“There was a realization that openly LGBTQ people’s profiles were not to be collected or circulated [within Mennonite Church USA’s system],” says Carol Wise, executive director of BMC. “What do you do with that when there are increasing numbers of Supportive Communities Network congregations and other groups that would be very open to having someone who is LGBTQ in a pastoral position?”
In his role, Lloyd Miller will help collect the same types of information that all Mennonite pastoral candidates must complete as part of the Ministerial Information (MLI) form. He will work with candidates to be sure their references, transcripts and other materials are in place. In addition, his role will include providing mentoring and pastoral support for candidates and approaching congregations with pastoral openings to assess their openness to LGBTQ candidates.
“If I would be a queer ministerial candidate, I’d be completely puzzled by how I should traverse this terrain,” says Miller. “It feels very unfriendly, it feels unclear, and it feels like there are many barriers that keep me from using my gifts on behalf of the church. Maybe we can open those spaces and make it a bit easier and a bit more sensible for queer candidates to continue to examine their own gifts, their vision for themselves and their relationship to the church in the future.”
Although he was appointed in June 2015, Miller and the Reconciling Minister Project Team are just now beginning to put new systems in place. In conversation with Mennonite Church USA Leadership Development staff members, the committee was encouraged to wait to implement new systems until after the February meeting of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board.
Ervin Stutzman, Mennonite Church USA executive director, and MC USA staff members Terry Shue and Nancy Kauffmann tested a proposal that would allow LGBTQ individuals to complete the MLI process. With this proposal, LGBTQ candidates would not be listed on the national registry, but their MLIs would be sent to conferences and congregations that requested them. Currently, the MLI form does not ask a candidate to specify sexual orientation, but if a candidate or their references discloses a same-sex relationship, the MLI is not processed.
EB members gave initial feedback to this idea in their September 2015 board meeting but tabled the proposal for further conversation in February. After receiving informal feedback from the EB and conference ministers, staff withdrew the proposal, and it was not processed by the board at its February 2016 meeting.
Lloyd Miller and the Reconciling Minister Project Team are now thinking about next steps, but the members are clear they hope this is a solution that is not always needed.
“Our goal is to fill a need that’s not being met by the current system,” says Joel Miller. “For the unforeseen future, there will be extra support needed for LGBTQ pastors, just because of the culture and church realities. As far as the specific call process, our hope is that the denomination can open this up and we would be out of a job. This is by no means an alternative credentialing system; that’s the work of conferences. Our purpose is just connecting searching congregations and searching pastors who the MLI system is currently failing.”
Leaving Mennonite Church USA requires new systems
The inclusive pastors are not the only group looking at alternative models for calling. Questions also remain about how congregations and conferences who leave Mennonite Church USA will work at calling and credentialing pastors.
The Evana Network, a new organization launched in October 2015, is developing its own model for calling and credentialing. As of April 14, 17 congregations have joined that network. Sixteen of the congregations are current or former Mennonite Church USA congregations.
According to John Troyer, Evana executive director, the network is developing a credentialing process for congregations that are not affiliated elsewhere, and is not relying on any conference or denominational databases for a calling system.
“When pastors want to be credentialed by us, we ask for a reference from their previous place of credentialing,” wrote Troyer in an April 14 email. “We have not explored the area of information sharing with other denominations at this point, but we value working with existing evangelical Anabaptist institutions to facilitate a shared evangelical Anabaptist witness and to generate movement toward community transformation.”
According to the Evana website, during preliminary conversations with pastors, “Evana will have the primary responsibility in determining the candidate’s theological perspective, and the local congregation will have the primary responsibility for assessing the pastor’s spiritual maturity and character. The preliminary designation will be removed once the EVANA community has had an opportunity to learn to know the pastor through active involvement in Evana…participation in Evana events and engaging in mission with other congregations.”
Evana’s process will also include a background check for all candidates.
The loss of a shared calling system
The rise of these alternative calling systems raises concerns for MC USA leadership development staff, who have worked to design a consistent calling system that includes background and reference checks for all candidates and allows conferences to share information about suspended credentials, abusive behaviors or other concerns. Conference ministers are encouraged to enter any concerns into the “Menno Data” database, and these notes are included on an individual’s MLI record.
Joel and Lloyd Miller acknowledge strengths of the current call system and emphasize that they will be modeling their requirements for candidates off the MLI process. They also plan to consult with MC USA staff to make sure information is shared as needed.
“That’s one of the frustrating failures in all this. I think we have a great call system. It’s been thought out,” says Joel Miller. “For the sake of our congregations and people and systems, it’s another reason why all MLIs should be processed.”
The Reconciling Minister Project Team hopes that appointing Lloyd in this position will open up pathways to ministry for queer candidates without prior relationships to the congregation that calls them. To date, all openly LGBTQ pastors in Mennonite Church USA were attendees at their congregations prior to being called to serve.
“In the long term, there’s obviously the dream of systems that are able to integrate LGBTQ inclusion and identity and theological gifts and strengths,” says Sarah Klaassen, BMC board chair and a member of the Reconciling Minister Project Team. Klaassen grew up in a Mennonite congregation but is now an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination. “Then we can move on and start working on some of the other things that are critical about being a human and person of faith today.… To have someone who at least has a little bit of institutional weight—in this case Lloyd is supported by inclusive pastors and supported by BMC—that’s important and significant.”
Other members of the project team include Joanna Harader, pastor at Peace Mennonite Church, Lawrence, Kansas and Megan Ramer, pastor at Seattle Mennonite Church.